Tag Archives: Gematria

Secrets of Shema

In this week’s parasha, Va’etchanan, we find the Shema and its first paragraph. The Shema is undoubtedly the most important text recited by Jews. It sets out the fundamental creed and purpose of Judaism. It is the first thing that a Jewish child should be taught (Sukkah 42a). According to one opinion, reciting the Shema is what distinguishes a person from being an ‘am aretz—one of the unlearned masses (Berakhot 47a). The Midrash states that one who properly recites the Shema is like one who fulfils all Ten Commandments! (See Otzar Midrashim, pg. 489.)

That last statement is particularly significant since there was a time when the Ten Commandments were recited together with the Shema (Berakhot 12a). The Sages eventually removed the Ten Commandments and replaced it with the current third paragraph which discusses the mitzvah of tzitzit. This was done because of the growing Christian movement that had abandoned essentially all of the mitzvot and focused only on the Ten Commandments (with Shabbat moved to Sunday). The Sages instituted the new third paragraph to lessen the emphasis on the Ten Commandments and to make it clear that we are obligated to keep all of God’s commandments, as the third paragraph states explicitly.

The Shema’s importance cannot be overstated. It is the very first topic discussed in the Talmud. It is the last verse to emerge from the lips of a dying Jew. Kabbalistic texts speak at length about the Shema and its power, the endless meditations and intentions associated with it, and the incredible secrets buried within it. The following is a tiny sample of some of those mysteries.

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The Divine Anatomy of the Human Body

This week we conclude the fourth book of the Torah (Bamidbar) with the double parasha of Matot and Massei. The latter lists the 42 stops that the Israelites made during the course of their forty year sojourn in the Wilderness. While we know that this forty year period was a “punishment” because the Israelites failed to enter and settle the Holy Land as commanded, there are deeper reasons as well. One of these is that the Israelites spent those four decades learning the Torah for the first time. In some ways, it was like their gestation period.

The Sages compared the 40 years in the Wilderness to the 40 weeks of pregnancy, and pointed out that the gematria of Bamidbar (במדבר) is 248, equal to rechem (רחם), “womb”. This number is not random, for the Sages enumerated precisely 248 parts of the body, which first develop in the womb. The number agrees with modern science, the human body having 206 bones and about 42 major organs (though the latter number is subject to some controversy, depending on how one defines “organ”). The 42 stops that the Israelites made in the Wilderness neatly parallel the 42 organs. The number 206, meanwhile, is the gematria of davar (דבר), literally “word” or “thing”, and is the root of Bamidbar, “In the Wilderness”. The Wilderness was where Israel first heard the Word of God, and where Israel was officially born as a people.

So, there was something of a “divine anatomy” to the time and place of the Israelite wandering. In a similar—and far more amazing—way, there is a “divine anatomy” to the human body.

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How Korach Was Rectified in Samuel

“Death of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram” by Gustave Doré

This week’s parasha, Korach, describes the rebellion instigated by Moses’ Levite cousin Korach. Korach’s main accusation was against Aaron and the Kohanim: why did they tale all the priestly services for themselves and left nothing for the lay Israelite? Had not God stated that all of Israel will be a holy nation of kohanim? (Exodus 19:6) Why did only a small group of people (Aaron and his descendants) suddenly become kohanim? His argument was actually a valid one, and Rashi (on Numbers 16:6) records that Moses even agreed with Korach to some extent, and said that he too wishes that all of Israel could be priests! Why weren’t they?

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